Originally created 02/27/06

Port security story sends CNN's Dobbs into attack mode



NEW YORK - Since first reading in a British newspaper about a company from the United Arab Emirates taking over operations at six U.S. ports, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has been on the story relentlessly - and making no secret how he feels about it.

"I see it, frankly, as an outrage against the national interest of the United States and I won't sugarcoat that at all," Dobbs said on his Tuesday newscast.

No one expected him to. One of television's best-known business journalists and the last CNN anchor who dates back to the network's formation in 1980, Dobbs has become a crusader on issues like free trade, immigration, national security and corporate greed.

Critics contend he ignores any kind of dividing line between news and opinion; Dobbs says he's doing what his audience demands.

Two-thirds of his show last Wednesday, for example, concerned the port security issue. It featured reports on the political fallout from CNN correspondents Dana Bash and Ed Henry, a live interview with New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a story on Bush administration business contacts with the UAE and a backgrounder on foreign ownership of U.S. port interests.

Even viewers who muted the sound would have no trouble getting the point. Reports had on-screen titles like "Homeland Insecurity," "U.S. Security Sell-off" and "The Friends and Family Plan."

Dobbs tried to personally refute the Bush administration's argument that the Arab company should be treated no differently than a British one, saying the president had "put forth a challenge that I simply can't ignore."

In one segment, he read a sample of opinions e-mailed by viewers - all 12 of which agreed with him. "Why not just sell the seaports to al-Qaeda?" one woman wrote.

The mix is familiar to Dobbs' fans (his show is seen by 636,000 viewers on a typical night). Dobbs has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for not doing more to halt illegal immigration, spotlighted "idiotic free trade policies" and railed against the Justice Department for needlessly forcing people out of work with its case against the Arthur Andersen accounting firm.

A lifelong Republican, Dobbs has been at constant odds with the Bush administration, particularly for what he calls "contradictory and halfhearted efforts" on national security.

His office and staff are tucked away in a corner of CNN's new headquarters in New York City, marked by a huge portrait of the host. Dobbs said his world view changed in 2001 because of Enron and other corporate corruption scandals and, finally, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Perhaps the first sign he was changing his way of doing things was a refusal to use the term war on terror, saying it should properly be called a war on radical Islamists who are committing terror.

"I believe the issues are too important to feign any kind of neutrality, or pretend to some objectivity that simply doesn't exist," he said. "I'm not one of those journalists who's interested in doing he said-she said journalism. You know as a journalist, the truth is not about fair and balanced."

He said his opinions are based not on ideology, but an intense study of the issues. "There's a nonpartisan reality and I see it as my job to report that, and my audience expects me to," he said.

More people in television news should do it his way, he said.

"I believe that the issues are too important to do business in a pre-Sept. 11 manner," he said. "This is a nation under threat - economically, geopolitically and ideologically."

Dan Gainor, a former managing editor of Congressional Quarterly who now monitors coverage of economic issues for the conservative watchdog Media Research Center, said he's surprised that CNN allows Dobbs to inject his opinions into the news reports.

Not only does Dobbs make clear where he stands, Gainor said his researchers have documented how the newscast gives short shrift to contradictory views.

"He and I have different views about what journalists are supposed to do," he said. "To me, you're either an advocate or a journalist. You shouldn't pretend to be both."

Gainor says he feels that way even on issues where he agrees with Dobbs. "I'd be more than willing to admit we have an immigration problem," he said. "But it's a problem we have every night on (Dobbs') show."

Dobbs said CNN's management has backed, even encouraged, him. Jonathan Klein, head of CNN's domestic operations, said it's part of a rounded CNN programming lineup.

"When he gives vent to his point of view, it is very clear that it is his opinion," Klein said. "He makes no bones about it... A less experienced broadcaster could go way overboard and not give the other side a chance to respond, where I think Lou bends over backwards to make sure that all sides are represented on his program, even if he has an opinion about the issue at hand. That's the journalist in him."

So does that mean Klein would give his OK if, for example, Wolf Blitzer were to walk into his office and say he's angry about the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war and wanted to make his opinion known every day on "The Situation Room"?

"I'd be worried that in Wolf it would be inauthentic and it wouldn't work and he wouldn't do it right," he said. "You can't fake this. You either have it as a burn inside of you or you don't."

Dobbs has no apparent doubts that what he's doing is right.

"As I began talking about corporate corruption and the failure of government to conduct itself properly and in the interests of the American people, one thing has led to another," he said, "and I think it's fair to say I've been validated in every position that I've taken."